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It is impossible to imagine that it has been 365 days since I heard the words “It’s cancer.” In so many ways – it feels like it was yesterday. In many others – I feel like this past year has been the longest of my life.

The funny thing is, as I sit and ruminate about all that has transpired, my mind does not focus on the fear or pain or sadness. Rather, I recall the laughter and the times with friends and family and the “good stuff.” There were times over the past year that I felt like a victim. Self-pity became commonplace for days on end. Yet today I truly feel fortunate. AND – I don’t want to sound like one of those “rah rah – cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me” girls. But really, I’m kinda thankful.

It is especially difficult to rationalize these kinds of feelings when I think of a friend who lost his battle with cancer. He was diagnosed around the same time as me. But his cancer wasn’t treatable. His cancer was mean and ugly and invasive. And he passed away just about a week ago. I remember visiting him in the hospital late last year. I think he knew at the time that his options were few. But he had a smile on his tired face and continued to fight the fight.

So when I think of my own battle and where I am today, I sit here stunned. I’m trying not to ask myself, “Why me? Why do I still get to be here?” There is no sense in asking this question. Rather – I am going to spend today thinking about all the things I learned over the past year. Like how utterly important friends are. That asking for help is a good thing. An essential thing. That trust is key. Trust in doctors, trust in myself. That, despite how much fear or defeat or pain one might experience, there is always hope.

My friendships and my relationships with my family deepened over the last year. I found love. I have a new appreciation for my health. And, in typing these words, I just realized that it’s not really even about the cancer. Being “cured” of cancer isn’t really even on my top ten list of things I’m grateful for. Sure – I am blessed to be “cancer free.” Don’t get me wrong. But the important stuff – my wonderful relationships with the people in my life – this was the biggest bonus this year. I am a lucky, lucky girl. And I never would have imagined I would be saying this after hearing the words “it’s cancer” last March 31.

 

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I was diagnosed with breast cancer almost 10 months ago. At the time I recall wondering how this adventure would unfold. How much time would it take? Would I be going through treatments for the foreseeable future? What, I asked myself, would my year be like?

Then I met with my surgeons and we found out that, thankfully, I was early stage. That I would not need to endure radiation or chemotherapy. And I remember that, once I decided to go full throttle and elect the double mastectomy that, perhaps, my reconstruction would take a month or so. I was under the impression that they would simply remove the bad boobs and replace them with the good ones. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

So I sit here shaking my head over the fact that tomorrow – my surgical exploits will finally come to an end. Tomorrow … I get the nipples. It’s the end game. The icing on the cake. The cherry on top, if you will.

I met with my surgeon on Tuesday for my pre-op visit. But my feelings as I walked into the exam room this time were different.  I was giddy the last time I had a pre-op with her – excited to be getting my “real” breast implants (as opposed to the Magic 8 Ball-shaped, temporary implants that plagued me for months following my mastectomy). This time, I felt conflicted. I wasn’t “all in” with the concept of getting nipples. I’ve grown to like going sans bra when I feel like it. Did I really need them? I just wasn’t sure. And when I talked about it with a dear friend earlier that morning, she asked me why, exactly, I was getting them. Not in an accusatory way. Just trying to work with me to figure it out. And at that time I had sputtered, “I just want to feel whole again.” She paused and gave me some time to think about what I had just said. And I immediately recognized that I am not having this surgery to feel “whole” – I don’t need these little circles to complete myself. Yet I still struggled with why, exactly, I felt compelled to have the operation.

So when I mentioned to my surgeon that I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the surgery she told me that many, many women feel this way. Nipples are elective. They are purely cosmetic. They are not necessary. So some women struggle with it. And this all made sense and made me feel a bit better. So we continued with the exam. And she pulled out her trusty, black, indelible ink pen and drew circles on my breasts where the nipples will go. And when I looked in the mirror – I exhaled. I was reminded what it will be like to have “traditional” looking breasts. And, despite the fact that they are dark, inky black – these circles represent finality for me.

So today, as I clean my house and shop for groceries and prepare to rinse every last ounce of product from my hair in preparation for tomorrow’s surgery – I am at peace. I am, once again, excited to “get ‘er done.” And as if to fortify this feeling of serenity I’m enjoying – this morning I was blessed with the most amazing sight. I was walking along the beach down near where I used to do my beloved boot camp classes. Today I was merely strolling along with my boot camp instructor (now friend). And suddenly a few women went racing by – screaming and giddy and excitedly pointing toward the water. And there – a few hundred feet off the land – was a pod of Orcas. Glistening black and shimmering white. Magestic. Frolicking in the water – jumping up and diving down. I have lived in this town for over fourteen years and, until this morning, had never seen a whale.

I’m not really sure what this sighting meant. I don’t really even want to attach any significant meaning to it. Except to say that it was beautiful. That watching these creatures made me feel electric and alive. And even more ready for tomorrow. Because it will be a celebration of the end of an amazing journey. I can’t really believe it’s almost over…

It’s nearly impossible to believe that January of 2011 is already half over. It was brought to my attention recently that I haven’t written since my post about Elizabeth Edwards. Which makes me wonder how her family is dealing with their loss. I remember vividly the first Christmas without mom. We had months to mourn before the holidays hit and it was still tough. I recall my dad tearing up as our family held hands around the tree and sang our traditional Hungarian Christmas song. Just a month ago we clung to each other again to sing mom’s song and he didn’t make it through. It was heartbreaking to watch him as his lips trembled and he tried mightily to hold it together. And I don’t think we, either of us, are still experiencing grief per se. We just miss her.

So when I consider what has been taking up a lot of my head space of late, I am given pause to think about life’s priorities. And I’m thankful that my friend wrote to me, asking me to recommence these posts. Because it gives me perspective.

The title of this post should give you some idea of what I’ve been preoccupied with these days: what I look like….how I appear to others. It’s been somewhat of a lifelong obsession. One I’ve tried to rid myself of. I don’t know how many books and articles I’ve read over years on the subject. On how to “love myself” – regardless of how big my ass is. It’s a constant battle.

And now that I have these new boobs – it has become more … interesting. The girls are still pretty prominent. At least by my estimation. I’m so much more aware of them – as they strain against my shirts or ache just a bit more after exercise. And they are more … pronounced when I gaze at myself in the mirror. Just not so natural. At least to me.

This fixation on the girls has been compounded over the past month or so by the expansion of my waist and thighs. The holidays did a number on me. Pounds of homemade almond roca were consumed. I think I single-handedly put away a fondue pot worth of cheese on Christmas. Breads and cookies and candy were devoured. So today, my rings are a bit tighter. My jeans are snug. My face has filled out … hiding the cheekbones I cherished just a few months ago. And, until this past weekend, I let this image of my body dictate how I felt about myself.

And then, THEN, my boyfriend came to town. The very thing I feared (having him see me at my heaviest) turned into the very thing I needed.

He was due to arrive late on Friday evening and then his plane was delayed a bit. So I had some extra time to primp. Normally I just throw on some jeans and some mascara and I’m good to go. But this time I put on a dress. And boots. And I did my makeup. And I spent extra time on my hair. I even threw on some perfume.

And then, I read some old emails my boyfriend wrote a while back. And I was reminded that I was loved. And worthy of love. And, wonder of wonders, I felt really good about myself! And when my guy saw me, he told me I was beautiful. He told me that a lot that night. It was, well, beautiful.

So the lesson I learned was not that I should spend more time in the bathroom primping and preening. It wasn’t that I need to be thin. And it certainly wasn’t about the boobs. It was that I need to love myself. The very lesson I was trying to learn when I read all those books and articles. The very lesson that, upon hearing about it, made me want to barf.

So this is my new focus. Giving myself a freakin’ break. Focusing on the good stuff. Choosing to accept myself. This is my new motivation. At least for today.

Happy New Year!!!

Elizabeth Edwards died today. She was 61. She had breast cancer. And it killed her.

For some reason, I tend to forget about the all too often devastating effects of this disease. So many are cured today. The news from the medical community is often full of hope. And yet… women are still dying.

I was talking with a friend just this morning about one of her friend’s mother who has the disease. I asked how she is doing. After a pause my friend replied “Not well…” I knew better than to ask more questions.

And I was struck after hearing of this woman’s battle, even before I heard the news about Mrs. Edwards, about how incredibly lucky I have been… I didn’t lose one hair on my head. I didn’t throw up once. No chemo. No radiation. No devastating surgical emergencies. Not even, quite honestly, a strong fear that I might not beat this thing. Well – perhaps the first few days – before I knew the nature of my personal form of breast cancer. There were a few moments of wonder and apprehension and, well, fear. And I know I still can’t be 100% certain that my cancer will never spread. But. But… I might just be one of the lucky ones.

I am especially struck by the today’s news because I have just this week felt like I’m finally getting my groove back. I attended a Nia class earlier this – a wild and wonderful dance/exercise class that had my heart racing … leaving me out of breath and exhilarated. And thrilled that I was able to move about so freely and once again enjoy exercise. And today my dear boot camp instructor gave me a personal workout. I was once again lifting weights and doing my beloved (ha!) squats and lunges. And it felt great! I feel like I’m on my way back to normalcy. Or at least my new normal.

So to be reminded that I have, or had, what can be a deadly disease … I was stopped in my tracks. Reminded of the frailty of life. Had I not found my tumor so early … there but for the grace of God…

Elizabeth Edwards posted the following on her Facebook page:

“I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope.” She added: “The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that.”

I love her words. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of family and friends and hope. And, while I am saddened by her passing, I am grateful to be reminded of how precious life is. I’ve been full of gratitude the past months. But today I am especially thankful for everything that life has bestowed upon me. I hope I never lose sight of all life’s blessings.

Today the third person in three days asked me about this blog. “Why haven’t you written?” was the question. Not in an admonishing way. Just more out of curiosity. So I figured it was time. To write.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. I have. And I feel I have been remiss. It’s just that I’ve actually, finally, been more focused on living my life rather than documenting it. Don’t get me wrong. This blog has been more therapeutic than I ever thought possible. Both for me – and, from what I’ve heard, for others. And I know I’ll look back on this time in my life and be grateful that I recorded all the memories and emotions and goings-on and feelings.

It’s just that … life seems so normal now. In many ways I feel like the life I’m living is not as worthy of mention as when I was going through “the shit.” Why, I wonder, is the tough stuff easier to write about? Why did I give it more attention? Perhaps because when I was struggling, I needed to write about it. Through the written word – I was able to feel a connection … to know that I was being heard. And through the writing I did connect. And I now have the most amazing support system – a group of friends far and wide with whom I can talk about anything. So perhaps my need to connect through these posts has diminished.

Which brings me to this… When I wrote above that things seem so “normal” – I wasn’t being completely accurate in my characterization of my life. Today – my life is extraordinary. Beyond anything I could ever have imagined. In years past, I used to struggle to come up with even a few items to mention during the traditional Thanksgiving dinner question, “What are you thankful for this year?” This year – I feel like I could go on for hours. I’m not prepared to go into details in this venue as to why my life is so amazing. Not yet. Suffice it to say that the dreams I’ve dreamt about my career and, more importantly, having love in my life, have come true. And it is bliss.

I’ll close for now by mentioning my grandmother. She turned 105 this week. She is a powerhouse. Still going strong with a sparkle in her eye and a constant smile on her face. I recall vividly that my friend Sonya mentioned earlier this year that she hoped to live until she was 110. And I remember that, at the time, such a long life sounded … painful and sad. I didn’t, at the time, want to go on living so long. To age and lose control. But today – I want to live this life I’ve been given as long as possible. I’ve been given a gift. Of love and friendship and learning how to live a meaningful life. I am thankful beyond words.

I just returned from the Swedish Cancer Institute. Just a quick check-up for “the girls” … and I’m happy to report that they are fantastic!

I hung out in the waiting room for only a few minutes before my plastic surgeon called me in. Immediately after asking me how I was doing she said, “I can’t tell you how much your card meant to me.”  I had kind of forgotten that I had mailed her a Thank You card a week or so ago. I recall being apprehensive about sending it. I didn’t want her to think I was kissing her ass. And this is a woman, after all, who scared the crap out of me during our first meeting. She is strikingly beautiful and very smart and, well, a bit clinical. She is a self-described “pain in the ass” – someone who doesn’t suffer fools easily. Which is what one wants in a surgeon. But still, she used to make me nervous. Regardless, I sent her the card because I feel so strongly about what she has done for me. I wanted her to know that I appreciate her artistry and surgical skills and that I feel that she is the rare individual who is doing what they were born to do.

Apparently, these messages, delivered in a sweet little card, really resonated with her. As we walked into the exam room, she told me that, when she received my card, she was having a really crummy day. That my words had brightened her mood. And, more importantly, reminded her why she does what she does.

I was so grateful that she “got it.” That a small token had meant so much. And it confirmed my new-found belief that, if I’m feeling something or thinking something … I should SAY something. People can’t read minds. I need to tell someone I love them. Or remind a friend how wonderful they are. So I’m doing this a lot more these days. And it feels great.

As if to underscore this new found inclination to express myself, as I was walking toward the hospital exit, who should walk toward me but Tony. As I wrote back in May, Tony is a security guard at the Cancer Institute. He has a perpetual smile on his face and helps all of us “cancer folk” (my term – not his) find our way through the labyrinth that is Swedish Hospital. Today – when I saw Tony sauntering toward me, I couldn’t help but grin wildly. As he approached, he smiled back and then I stopped in front of him and said, “Can I tell you something?” He looked at my quizzically, yet with his grin firmly in place. I continued, “When I was diagnosed with cancer last spring, you escorted my friend and I throughout this hospital. You made my day. You made me feel like everything was going to be O.K.”  Upon hearing this – Tony’s smile broadened and he opened his arms and embraced me. “I remember you girl!” he exclaimed. “How you doing? You look great! Great!!”  And we chatted for a brief moment and I told him again how important he is. What a difference he makes. And as I started to move on his arms opened again for another warm hug. As I walked away he called, “You’re looking great! Keep it up.”

So I was glad that I stopped. That I told Tony what he meant to me. I no longer want to assume people know these things. I know how great it feels to be told that I am loved. So I intend to make sure that the people in my life, including surgeons and security guards, know how truly important, and wonderful, they are.

I awoke with a realization this morning. I no longer think of myself as “Cancer Kathryn.” Rather, I think of myself as a woman who had breast cancer. And the fact that I’m thinking in past tense is pretty huge for me. Sure – I still have almost 5 years of treatments and will continue to hang out with my oncologist more frequently than I would like. And I might spend a bit of time every now and then wondering if the evil cancer cells are floating about inside me. But really, today it just seems as if cancer is part of my story. Just a portion of who I am today. And for this – I am grateful. Especially when I reflect on the past months.

Back on May 12 I wrote the following:

“ … I am left wondering about the mental me. My spiritual self. Who am I now? What is my identity today? Like I said, I cannot think of myself without thinking of my cancer. We go hand in hand. A box set, if you will. I think, for the most part, I am starting to come to terms with this new Kathryn. I believe I like her. But it’s a bit of an out-of-body experience, looking at myself as cancer Kathryn. And I am hopeful that I will not always spend so much time and energy trying to define myself, to figure myself out. Because it is exhausting. I just want to be. I look forward to a time when I am asked, ‘How are you?’ and I can simply answer, “OK” without people raising their eyebrows and wondering how I really am.”

Then, by the time July 4 rolled around I was telling friends that “’Cancer Kathryn’ might need to move on. That enough time (had) passed since my mastectomy and all the ‘big stuff’ went down.” At this point – I was fearful of the evolution. I asked, “Who am I today if not ‘Cancer Kathryn?’”

Today I am no longer afraid. Whereas once I felt the need to define myself  by my disease (hoping, in all honestly, to sustain the goodwill and sympathy brought on by my diagnosis) – today I feel whole. No longer do I feel the need to figure out who I am. And I think, I know, that my new found confidence and sense of self is a result of all the love in my life today. The support and affection I’ve received throughout this journey have allowed me to breath.  I am no longer lost. So … I’m not abandoning “Cancer Kathryn” – she’ll always be along for the ride. But she’s gonna have to hang out in the back seat.